Getting back on course…

Tomorrow morning Week 4 of the semester begins! I’m teaching two graduate-level classes. Each meets once a week for 3 hours. You might think that means that I’ve had 9 contact hours so far with each class … but you would be quite wrong.

Thanks to Hurricane Irma, which thankfully only skirted our local area and left minimal (compared to last year’s Hurricane Hermine and Irma elsewhere) damages and power outages, the university closed for 6 business days. From Friday of Week 2 through Friday of Week 3, classes were canceled. For my Tuesday class, that was a loss of 3 classroom hours. For my Friday class, a loss of 6 hours. In fact, we’ve only met once! (Hi EME6476 students – aren’t you glad I kept you for the full 3 hours during Week 1?).

When the first cancelation was announced (Friday/Monday, if I recall correctly), I didn’t worry too much about my missed class. I was a bit annoyed; I prepped from 4:30-8 pm while my husband took my daughter to her ballet class and her school skate night. All of that work for naught since the cancelation was announced about an hour later. However, having suffered property damage from Hermine that’s only just now been fully repaired, I was thinking about how to prepare for this storm. I had been preparing in the evenings all week, but having Friday off meant more time to deal with issues at my house and that I could go help my daughter’s elementary school secure outdoor equipment and move books from bottom shelves. It was a good thing. I sent an email to my Friday class assuming they had already done the prep for that week, and encouraging them to just keep reading ahead for the next week.

A short while later, the university announced that it would be closed the entire next week in anticipation of time needed to get power back, etc. The storm was due to hit Sunday/Monday, and Tallahassee is known for power outages with the slightest breeze. Although it was early to make that call, the previous year the university was without power for several days. Also, the extra time allowed people to comfortably evacuate as desired and not worry about getting back to work on Tuesday. The lead up to the storm was intense, with gas shortages and food shortages, 36 hours before the storm hitting locally, we were in a ghost town. And no one was thinking about work/school.

Flash forward a few days. The storm passed with minimal damages. We all heaved a huge sigh of relief. Houses needed to be put back in order, friends and neighbors who lacked electricity and had messy yards needed help, and normalcy needed to be restored. Finally it was time to think about work/school again.

The university sent around a memo reminding faculty that we had lost instructional time and needed to find a way to make it up. Ha! As if we hadn’t noticed. As if we weren’t all scrambling to figure out a new version of the course syllabus, and how to cover all of the necessary material, facilitate all of the necessary activities, have the assignments on adjusted deadlines but still far enough apart to allow reasonable time for feedback between them.

Planning for canceled classes before the term begins, to accommodate conference travel and such, is not a huge problem. Redoing a course syllabus mid-stream when class sessions have been cancelled is difficult. I hate to cancel class. I will show up and teach as long as I can stand (and actually I remember one time I couldn’t stand and so I sat … but I was there and I sat and I taught). If I’m contagious, I may stay home, but then I move class online. I simply do not cancel class sessions once the term has begun.I do not want to change my syllabus.
This time I had to change my syllabus.

To get my classes back on track, I looked for a way to slide back into the existing syllabus/schedule with as little change as possible. I didn’t want to cut any readings, or activities, or assessments. I wanted to keep it all, and I wanted to get back to the original rhythm I’d set out for the term. I was thankful that the university had sent a memo suggesting that we HAD to make up for lost time and indications various options (e.g., lengthening class meeting times, using online lectures and activities).

So, what did I do? Class 1 is a learning theory class. During the first half of the term we typically cover a chapter of the text per week (so, a theory/related collection of theories per week). I have a rhythm of activities that spans across class prep (reading, self-check quiz), class activities, assessment, and follow-up in the next class. It’s a lot of work. It’s pretty relentless, really, with weekly small assessments. I needed to get back on track. Just missing one week, Week 3, was a problem. Ever thankful that I just redesigned the online version of this class last spring, I scooped up my online “lecturettes” in VoiceThread for Weeks 3 and 4 and made them available to my students. I asked my students to pay it forward in lecture units, reviewing those at home before the Week 4 class, and then promised that during the Week 4 class we’ll do Week 2 review and then do the activities for Weeks 3 and 4. I’m pretty sure this will work and that I’ll have enough time. So far my students seem to largely be engaged with the VoiceThreads (they’re leaving comments!) and they’re making up the instructional time. I pushed back the weekly assessments a bit, partly because of delayed feedback from me on the prior one (I was busy with storm prep and then had no Internet for a few days), and partly to just keep things humane for everyone.

Class 2 is a doctoral research seminar. It’s a small class, but we missed two class sessions. Not good. For this class, lectures don’t really make sense. We normally sit around the seminar table and discuss. I had asked the students to keep up with readings, and I posted versions of my in-class discussion questions for Weeks 2 (that I had prepped already) and 3 (based on notes from the last time I taught the course) in our LMS, Canvas, and asked the students to discuss there. It’s not a perfect solution, but should keep everyone moving along with the content so I don’t have to adjust any readings. There are other little bits I’ll need to fit in along the way, and I’m considering shifting a few in-class topics to VoiceThreads in upcoming weeks. I have a list of things to debrief – homework 1, brief paper 1, the online discussion – when we meet at the end of Week 4. An activity I really wanted to do may need to be scrapped or condensed. But we’ll be fully on track in Week 5, save for depth of discussion.

Whew. Now why did I type this all out? It seemed worth documenting. I know this is a scenario that often stresses people out, and reworking a syllabus a week or two into a course (with myriad possibilities, none that attractive) is very different from having to make adjustments near the end of the term. Perhaps someone out there will read this and find it helpful as they consider how to rework a syllabus mid-stream for whatever reason. Hurricanes happen, as do other situations (both personal and more general). We fall behind. We have to catch up. We can do this. By the end of the term, no one will remember the hiccup at the beginning. I learned that lesson last year, during Hurricane Hermine.